Just a few more days, please?
17.12.2009 - 23.12.2009
As I mentioned earlier when discussing the London expedition, those of us UiT students who weren’t fortunate enough to call Europe home were rather keen on taking advantage of our newfound access to continental Europe. Thus, in addition to the trip-to-England-that-nearly-killed-me, I had ALSO accepted a kind invitation from Raimo to visit both his hometown and his university-town.
Because nothing in life is easy, my flightplan looked something like this:
17 Dec: Fly to Oslo from Tromsø*
18 Dec: Fly to Bremen (Raimo’s hometown) from Oslo*
19 Dec: Train to Marburg (Raimo’s university town)
22 Dec: Fly to Oslo from Frankfurt*
23 Dec: Fly to Calgary via Frankfurt*
-*includes a train
Yes, you read that correctly. The plan was to fly to Germany, fly to Norway, and fly BACK to Germany en route to Canada. The final flight (the flight home) had been booked since July, and for reasons that still confuse me Air Canada was entirely unwilling to let me catch my flight at the layover point.
All told, within two weeks I wrote 3 finals, caught 9 flights, hopped 7 trains, and a hitched along a smattering of buses, trams, and elevators, and undergrounds. Most of the time with my life’s possessions in tow.
We can debate my sanity later – there’s still a few stories to tell.
ALL’S WELL AS ENDS BETTER
Thankfully, aided by some spectacular hospitality, I was able to have a relatively relaxing and healing final week in Europe. As I mentioned last week, I was sick as a dog at this point – having a night in a genuine family home with Raimo (a real mother, home-cooked meals and hot water bottles) followed by a few nights in Marburg under the care of Raimo and Julia (his girlfriend) did absolute wonders for my health.
RYANAIR – TRAVEL ON THE CHEAP
A major reason I was able to travel as much as I did was the economic travel options available in Western Europe. In particular, I’m going to tell you a little story about Ryanair.
Ryanair is a strange little Irish airline that flies from city to city for as little as, well, free. (Of course there are a few airport fees and the like, but you are still booking your flight for twenty or thirty bucks).
However, there are a few catches:
- Carry-on baggage only (each checked bag is $40);
- Must print own boarding pass ($40 otherwise);
- Rush seating only (reserving is $40);
- Non EU aliens (i.e. me) must show up exorbitantly early for processing (otherwise – you guessed it - $40);
- No food or beverage service (I never checked, but I bet each beer was $40 too).
Not only that, but Ryanair only flies out of smaller regional airports (which need to be reached by bus/train, rumoured to be owned by the airline) and has flights booked at awful times of the day, making transfers near impossible.
However, if you’re willing to live out of one carry-on and play by all their other rules, it can be an exceedingly economic way to travel.
And so it was that I found myself at Sandefjord airport, billed on Ryanair’s website as Oslo (Sandefjord). Talk about misleading – it was over 100 km away from the city! For my Saskatchewan readers, this would be like booking a flight to Regina or Saskatoon and landing in Davidson.
For most of the afternoon I played the Ryanair game like a pro, putting up with the endless queues and winding my way onto the plane. Once onboard, I was fairly pleased with the pleasant hostesses and the comfortable leather seats, and settled myself in at the rear of the plane with Mozart wafting gently over the PA system.
And then, with the slightest little setting, Ryanair almost managed to tick me off. For it was that from boarding until takeoff, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik played no less than ten times.
Even the work of the great Amadeus, ten times over… thank goodness for over-ear headphones.
Dazed and bundled, I stumbled off the plane in Bremen to a respectable blizzard, even by Canadian standards. Raimo was a sight for sore eyes, hauling me into his vehicle with apologies for the weather. His apologies continued as we weaved in and out of timid German motorists absolutely befuddles by the flakes on the road (“Adam! I wish you could be here in the summer – then we take my father’s car and we do 200!”).
With no great fuss, we made it to his beautiful old farmhouse some 30 km outside of Bremen. Before I could blink, I had a bottle of Beck’s in one hand (the pride of Bremen) and a hot cup of tea in the other. This treatment continued throughout the night, as Raimo’s parents fussed over this sickly Canadian while regaling me of stories of their own backpacking through Canada (through Saskatchewan!) some thirty years earlier. In particular, I remember the meal I was treated to – traditional foods from both of his parents, centred with a unique and tasty salad from Hessen (his father’s home region) with a cream based dressing and hard-boiled eggs. (Though I must say, I was so sick at this point that most everything tasted about the same as cardboard.)
ON THE DEUTSCHE BAHN
Of all my train rides in Europe, our daytime trip to Raimo’s university-town of Marburg was my favourite. Whipping across the German countryside on the ultra-efficient and timely German train system, I couldn’t help but wonder why such a service wasn’t available back home.
Unfortunately, my daydream was shattered by the snow that was wreaking havoc across Europe. For the first time in Raimo’s memory, our connection in Hannover was delayed. However, as we were in no rush, we took this chance to tour the Christmas market just outside the doors of the train station.
And as there’s always a silver lining: I had my first proper sausage since leaving Canada in August. German bratwurst with proper mustard for one euro fifty – bargain. For all its greatness, Norway did NOT know how to make a sausage.
Finally, the train showed up, and we happily munched away on the sandwiches packed by Raimo’s mom (hearty sunflower bread and thick cheese) while we filled out ten-euro refund forms as long as our arms (“German bureaucracy” - Raimo).
All of Raimo’s stories of his university-town couldn’t even come close to the truth – and he was a local. But I shall do my best.
Marburg is a beautiful little German city, built on a hill with tightly-packed houses and cobblestone streets winding up the hill to a castle at the very top. At its heart it is a university-town, with elegant stone buildings of each faculty scattered about the old city. I may have been a little starry-eyed, but to me, it seemed to spring from a fairy tale.
We spent our three days padding the cobblestones of Marburg, cutting up impossibly hidden footpaths, stumbling upon little shops and warm corner pubs, and marvelling at the Dickens-like character of Christmastime in the beautiful burg. Highlights included:
- A hearty meal of aufläufe (roughly, casserole) at a restaurant that specialized in the same – a tasty mixture of pasta, chicken, broccoli, cheese, ham, and a rich cream sauce that came, complete with a weißbier (wheat beer) for less than a Norwegian Big Mac.
- A snowy hike up the hill facing Marburg to visit the Spiegelslustturm (roughly, “mirror-like tower”; also the Kaiser Wilhelm Tower) for a beautiful panoramic view of… the snowstorm. However, the glühwein (mulled wine) at the top of the hill more than made up for the panoramic lack - I have searched and searched for such a drink on this side of the ocean, but to naught.
- A true student dwelling – average temperature of fifteen degrees (great for my cold…) and water meters on both the toilet and shower. I must say, nothing makes one more conscious of water usage than the dial climbing a foot in front of one’s face.
- The lovely Christmas Market in every corner of the town (with hot candied almonds, wow!), particularly by the square of St. Elisabeth’s Church. The Elisabethkirche itself as a famous and beautiful church, with twin towering spires, a partial set of stunning stained-glass windows, and one of the most unique pipe organs I have ever seen. It also has quite a history: from its original role as a pilgrimage destination containing the relics of Elisabeth of Hungary (herself a wonderful role model) to its current literal split between Catholic and Lutheran worship spaces, it is an excellent record of the tumultuous history of Christianity in Germany.
- This compares with the other notable church in Marburg; it has a bent spire because “a giant sat on it”. Or so Raimo says.
- Proper cheap student food at the University cafeteria – three dollars for all-you-can-eat pea soup (with a bratwurst afloat in its midst). This was matched in uniqueness only by the drink of Jägermeister we enjoyed at a little Mexican-themed restaurant just off the river Lahn.
- Finally, courtesy of Julia, I got a real good haircut for a real good price! A bathroom special, it was just what I needed to make the trip home as safe and simple as possible – if you look at those last pictures from Norway, it was getting fairly out of hand. Had the Norwegians not charged some sixty or seventy dollars for a haircut, this may not have been the case.
TRANSMISSIONS FROM MARBURG
Culled from my e-mails home, a final pair of my updates back to Canada:
“Marburg (Raimo's universitz town) is so cool! It's literallz built around a castle on a high hill with narrow winding cobblestone streets all the waz up and down. Had a great daz just walking about todaz, and am looking forward to exploring more with him and his girlfriend Julia tomorrow! Hope zou're reallz enjozing Christmas at home!!
(p.s. the craftz Germans seem to have hidden the "y" on me... if I find it, I'll let zou know.)”
“We went to service in the beautiful old University church today, and I played the organ! Wow, I'm going to miss those when I get home – they’re everywhere here. Also, I learned Silent Night in German with Raimo, Julia, and her guitar – very cool. Well, I almost learned it... they have this one sound I still can't master, it involves vibrating the throat in a funny fashion.”
BACK TO OSLO
Finally, on the 22nd of December, Raimo packed me to the train station in Marburg, from where I was to catch a train to Frankfurt am Main, a bus over the 120 km to “Frankfurt-Hahn” airport (another Ryanair special), a flight back to Sandefjord, a train back to Oslo, and a subway to my evening’s accommodation courtesy of Robert Udnesseter, my former hockey linemate and friend from Notre Dame.
Robert had been instrumental in these plans, hosting me in Oslo both on the way down to Germany and on the way back. On the way down, he treated me to a marvellous meal at his workplace, the restaurant fru HAGEN if memory serves. On the way back, he had already made his way home, but kindly offered the use of his apartment as a point of rest, arranging a rendezvous with his cousin at the opera house for the key transfer (true story) then instructing me to leave the key zipped in a particular coat pocket in a particular trunk stored on his deck. This made my entire travel plans much easier, and the bottle of Canada’s finest I left for him does not even come close to repaying this kindness.
At this point, I think I must say a huge thank you to every one of my hosts. Amazingly, Robert’s efforts were right in line with my treatment from all my friends, as time and time again I was shown stunning hospitality and extraordinary levels of kindness. If any of you are reading this, thank you from the bottom of my heart, and I welcome you back to Canada with open arms in the faint hope I might be able to repay even the tenth measure of your generosity.
THE FINAL LEG
That final night in Oslo gave me a bitter reminder that Canada isn’t the only cold place in the world, but I managed to struggle through to the grocery store for my last round of Norwegian groceries (my last tube of Kaviar – no replacement found for that yet).
Clothing vacuum-tight, bags weighed, and all belongings triple-checked, I caught the subway and train to Oslo airport, fetched my OTHER checked bag from airport security, and settled in for the Oslo-Frankfurt-Calgary flight home.
It was with delight that I spied the Air Canada flight on the Frankfurt tarmac, and the hosts greeted me in Canadian English AND French. I settled in to a surprisingly comfortable seat, enjoyed the finest in Canadian programming, and knocked back my first Canada Dry and Caesar in 5 months (don't worry, not in the same glass).
After an eight-hour transatlantic flight and a quick bag-check at Calgary Immigrations (I managed to sneak my Kaviar-tube past them), I passed through the gate and into the arms of my parents.
My Norwegian adventure had come to its close. I was home.